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Originally published February 3, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified February 3, 2011 at 11:51 PM

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Nicole Brodeur

Show turns up the heat on Hanford

The online jokes multiplied, naturally, after a radioactive rabbit was trapped on the Hanford nuclear site last November.

Seattle Times staff columnist

The online jokes multiplied, naturally, after a radioactive rabbit was trapped on the Hanford nuclear site last November.

Someone called it "Money Bunny." Another said the rabbit — which apparently drank water from the site of a demolished building where nuclear weapons were once made — was 50 feet tall and answered to Harvey.

In truth, that contaminated critter carried a serious message: Hanford officials need to do everything possible to contain radioactive waste.

But that's not how it has worked, says Tom Carpenter, the founder of the Hanford Challenge, which advocates for those who stand up for safety at the site. Carpenter charges that Hanford has punished employees with safety concerns instead.

"It has happened many times," he said.

The nonprofit is hosting "Taking THE EDGE off Hanford," Friday night at Seattle's Richard Hugo House to fund its support of Hanford employees who believe they have been punished for whistle-blowing. (For information, go to www.hanfordchallenge.org).

"A lot of people look the other way because they have too much to lose, and it can be really messy to be branded as a snitch," Carpenter said. "These people choose to take a stand because they can't live with themselves if they don't."

Once they do, Carpenter provides them pro bono legal representation or mediates between the employee and the government or its Hanford contractors to prevent litigation.

One of the trickiest jobs at Hanford is the cleanup of some 53 million gallons of radioactive waste now stored in aging underground tanks. The job involves turning high-level waste into glass, which will be buried underground

There can't be any shortcuts.

But last year, a high-level Hanford engineer named Walter Tamosaitis pointed out 50 "issues" with the waste-treatment process right after Hanford officials had claimed they had solved its technological problems, which would have earned them millions.

Tamosaitis said he was relieved of his position and sent to another office.

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"He has no title and no job duties," Carpenter said. "He goes crazy. Forty years, never a blot and he's wandering around, asking 'What do I do?'

With Carpenter's help, Tamosaitis has filed two civil suits against Hanford and the U.S. Department of Labor. Hanford denies that the engineer's job change was related to the complaint, and a federal Labor Department investigation is ongoing.

"Without Hanford Challenge, I would be dead in the water," Tamosaitis said. "That was the most important call I made in my life. It scares me to think what happens to the average person if they have a complaint, a concern, and don't have all the degrees after their name that I do.

"It's Tom Carpenter who goes after them."

Carpenter founded the Hanford Challenge four years ago, after 15 years with a whistle-blower defense group called Government Accountability Project. Along with protecting workers, Carpenter focuses on educating the public and building alliances with Tri-Cities residents and nearby Native-American tribes.

"We try to educate about Hanford without doom and gloom," Carpenter said.

To that end, Friday night's benefit features The Edge, an improv group from Bainbridge Island.

"It can be so overwhelming, but the idea of comedy is to get people to sit and relax," said The Edge member Matt Smith. "My goal is to make the Hanford Challenge the hippest, most fun, happening cause around. It's about staying alive."

Smith said he isn't above using the radioactive rabbit, its "contaminated turds," and "hot" Hanford sagebrush as fodder — with Carpenter's blessing.

"We're all expecting to laugh a lot," Carpenter said. "Sometimes we laugh to stop from crying."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

She needs a Silkwood shower.

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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